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New York cops lock up RNC protesters at a record pace
"Guantánamo on the Hudson"

By Jessie Kindig | September 10, 2004 | Page 2

NEW YORK City cops arrested more than 1,800 protesters during the Republican National Convention, the largest episode of mass arrests in the city's history. Police used overwhelming force, giant nets, pepper spray and other methods to round up and arrest those who gathered to raise a dissenting voice. Many protesters were grabbed in a "pre-emptive" fashion--on the suspicion that they might "make trouble."

To call attention to police violations of the right to free speech and protest, more than 200 people rallied September 1 outside the abandoned bus garage on Pier 57 that the city used as a detention center. The demonstrators chanted, "Protest is not a crime, why are they doing time?"

Pier 57 became known among activists as "Guantánamo on the Hudson." Men and women detainees were kept in separate holding pens made of chain-link fencing and ringed with concertina wire--each with only two portable toilets and very few benches.

The building's fire-suppression system was questionable, and the structure may still have contained asbestos. Oil residue from the buses coats the concrete floor that protesters were forced to sleep on--at least one person had to be taken to the emergency room with a skin infection.

Kim Sue, a college student in New York, spent more than 24 hours behind bars after infiltrating a rally by the Young Republicans in Madison Square Garden. "I feel like my whole experience was utter hell--every second of the way," said Kim. "I was scared...but I would do it again in a heartbeat."

Police claimed that the long periods of detention for minor charges happened because they were "overwhelmed" by the number of arrests. But for weeks, Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly had predicted 1,000 arrests a day.

Actually, the long detentions fit the pattern of police tactics at big demonstrations in other cities such as Miami, San Francisco and Philadelphia. Police wanted to squash dissent by locking up people who they thought would continue to protest.

"We got numerous reports from people in jail, or from their parents and partners, that the cops were telling them they weren't going to get out until George Bush got out of town," said Daniel Alterman, a lawyer who took up the protesters' cause. While police dismissed these stories as "deliberate misinformation," State Supreme Court Justice John Cataldo thought different--and ordered the cops to release nearly 500 protesters immediately.

When police failed to meet the terms of the order, the judge fined the city $1,000 for every protester held past the deadline. "These people have already been the victims of a process," Cataldo told city lawyers when he imposed the fine. "I can no longer accept your statement that you are trying to comply."

At a press conference called to criticize the city's rough handling of protesters, Leonard Weinglass, one of the lawyers for the famed Chicago Eight--antiwar activists arrested for organizing the 1968 Democratic National Convention protests in Chicago--denounced the appalling conditions and mass arrests.

Everyone knows the story of the Chicago cops' brutality in 1968, but New York police this year arrested three times as many people. The hypocrisy of George W. Bush's boasts that he's brought freedom to Iraq while basic civil liberties are violated at home is too glaring for anyone to ignore.

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